DOUBLE FEATURE: "And Then There Were None" dir. Rene Clair (1945) + "The Cabin in the Woods" dir. Drew Goddard (2012)

"Those whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad."
          -Emily Brent

To spoil, or not to spoil?  Although the idea of "Spoiling" itself certainly has deeper roots, we mostly associate the term with the increasing number of online critics of film and television that has been growing since the birth of the medium.  Of course, the idea of Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet is alternately derided as the death of standards in criticism, and praised as the democratizing of the true critical voice.  The term "Spoiler," popularized as a term of "Netiquette," has now been satirized, challenged, and reconstituted, and is, in one sense, essential to the discussion about the value of criticism, whether online or off.  As mentioned recently on ECSTATIC, sometimes a film is so bad it almost deserves to be spoiled (as with James McTeigue's The Raven), or more accurately, the surprise is so banal that it hardly even matters. And for those rare films that truly do have a twist worth preserving, it is often the case that the surprise is accompanied by a great film. Rene Clair's And Then There Were None, an adaptation of Agatha Christie's iconic murder mystery Ten Little Indians, is a film whose resolution is worth preserving, though not nearly the most interesting aspect of the film.  In this case, getting there is way more fun than the actual arrival.

And Then There Were None
With that said, I'm glad that And Then There Were None wasn't spoiled for me, although it may surprise some that I had a truly "pure" viewing of the film, since it is from 1945, adapted from a book first published in 1939, and therefore not quite as high a priority on the "Do Not Spoil" list as something like The Cabin in The Woods.  But, truly, I had no experience with the Christie novel, or the very popular stage version (which the film is based on), or any of the other film versions.  And, perhaps it's true what Jonah Lehrer proposes in his article from Wired last year, where he debunks the idea of the spoiler, admitting that he reads the end of cheap mystery novels first, concluding:  "Surprises are much more fun to plan than experience."  When Jonah Lehrer has time to read mystery novels I have no idea.  I generally can't find time to read fiction I want to read, let alone mystery novels, all while not being a famous neuroscientist who publishes books that draw broad conclusions about creativity and bathroom placement.  No, I'm not much of a  mystery guy, but that's probably because the "mystery" itself tends to be the only resident element of revelation in most of the genres incarnations.  As far as "spoilers" go, I have little concern for them on ECSTATIC in general, although I have pulled myself back from the brink of spoilage from time to time, but usually only when the "endangered element" of a film is bound to some essential idea within, which is perhaps not the case with And Then There Were None...which (SPOILER ALERT!) I'm not going to spoil.  The film is not without its moral considerations, but is perhaps more a film of exceptional craft than ideas.

It was his sled.
Rene Clair's roots as a director of silent films are on display from the very beginning of And Then There Were None, as we join a cast of potential murder suspects aboard a claustrophobic ferry to an unknown destination.  Sans dialogue, Clair establishes each character through a series of gestures, as each one is crowded out by the scoundrel next to them, creating a round of frustration that is the perfect comedic precursor to the increasingly frantic build of revolving suspicion to come.  Clair's silent era feature A nous la liberte (1931) is a great example of the kind of adeptness with physical and spatial humor that Clair carried over to sound films like ATTWN.  Somewhat sadly,  A nous la liberte is most often remembered as the film that launched a lawsuit against Charlie Chaplin for copping from Clair the idea for Modern Times (1936). Chaplin claimed not to have seen Clair's film, and by all accounts Clair was embarrassed by the claim of plagiarism, and a huge fan of Chaplin.  Both A nous la liberte and Modern Times play today as uncontroversial works of separate genius with a few interesting similarities, particularly in their commentaries on the working class and the problem of adapting to new technologies and industry. Though ATTWN is not as overtly political as Chaplin's first foray into talking pictures, The Great Dictator (1940), Clair's take on the murder mystery is probably more successful in its more modest, contained goals.

Charlie Chaplin as Adenoid Hynkle in The Great Dictator
Judith Anderson as Emily Brent in And Then There Were None
In And Then There Were None Clair is mostly subservient to the needs of the rather complicated logistics of telling Christie's story, though his artful mis-en-scene is never absent.  Remember, clarity of narrative is not exactly in line with Clair's beginnings, since even before his more commercial silent era work he came to film through the collaborative efforts of the French Dada-ists in the early 20's.  Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray appeared in Clair's first film, one of the seminal expressions of visual anarchy, Entr'acte, scored by Erik Satie and designed as the visual intermission for the Dada Opera Relache by Francis Picabia.  ATTWN is a far cry from those early films born of the anti-art movement, but in contrast shows just how expansive Clair's journey was as a director.  If Entr'acte threw all narrative rules to the wayside, ATTWN shows a director embracing the rules of storytelling, but still infusing it with a visual playfulness carried over from the Dada days.  In one of the film's best sequences, Clair cleverly engages us with the voyeuristic tropes of the film, as we spy along with the men in the house in a round of keyhole voyeurism that eventually eats its own tail.  The act of looking, spying, becomes a motif of increasing paranoia, as the characters track each other not only through keyholes, but also telescopes and binoculars.

June Duprez and Louis Hayward in And Then There Were None
Rene Clair
Although And Then There Were None might be considered dated by some, a mere template for the murder mystery genre, it remains quite unparalleled in its class, particularly because it offers a somewhat complex sense of itself.  As the characters progressively eye each other, there's another "eye" that is always present, shared by Clair and Christie, who are not exactly playing it straight.  The plot of the film revolves around discovering the identity of the man who has gathered this collection of unpunished murderers to a remote island, a man we know only as "U.N. Owen."  We first here the voice of the "U.N. Owen" character on a recording, cued up by the butler (a hilarious Richard Hayden...who didn't do it) as a way to announce the crimes of this house full of "Indians" (or "Niggers," as per the original title of the book), but is also cuing us to the "disembodied" influence on the story:  the author and auteur. And, embedded within this narrative is a constant reminder that the story has already been written, so to speak, as the entire murderous dance happens to the tune of "Ten Little Indians," even further framed in another external form by the sculptural centerpiece of the film that mysteriously marks the death of each guest.

And Then There Were None
"U.N. Owen" is, in one sense, what became "Jigsaw" from the Saw franchise. The thrill of witnessing the methodical punishment of the guilty is at the heart of both narratives. On the other hand, ATTWN is the inverse of the "money shot" mentality of torture porn in that nearly all of the moments of violence happen off screen, creating a sense of excitement around what the script withholds, as well as a unique balance of humor and sinister intent, and (perhaps the most absent claim made of the Saw films) a host of great performances--particularly Barry Fitzgerald as Judge Quinncannon, Walter Huston as Dr. Armstrong, and Judith Anderson as the ice cold Emily Brent ("Very Stupid to kill the only servant in the house.  Now we don't even know where to find the marmalade").  Is ATTWN a partial progenitor of the slasher film of the late 70's/early 80's, which then experienced an unsettling amplification in the age of increasing surveillance and You Tube remove?  Perhaps, but one of the significant differences is that ATTWN is not experiencing popularity in the age of the crimes of Guantanamo and the media proliferation of a particular brand of uneducated Christian extremism, which transforms the Saw franchise into a sort of accompanying right wing religious parable (the marketers of Saw III even clipped a few words from a verse of Ezekial for the trailer, as if it were Entertainment Weekly), with the true terror being that there is undoubtedly some "good Christian kid" out there right now with a box-set, a bear trap, and a plan to carry out some righteous, Jigsaw-style justice.  (After all, at the end of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ we didn't even get to see him strap on the bandeleros and kick some ass!)  But, of course, movies don't kill people.  People kill movies.  And, I would never suggest that the relationship between films and real world violence is one of simple Cause and Effect, but rather a cumulative effect that naturalizes us toward thinking about violence and justice in ways that, in this case, reflect too accurately the dangerously uncritical conservatism that is the bed that actual violence lies in.  As with Emily Brent, though the exterior presentation is clearly a posture, there is a weakness, a true fear, living in the heart of that audience, as they collectively echoed her words over the last eight years through ticket and T-shirt purchases:  "I see nothing wrong with his notion of punishing the guilty."

Saw III (2003)
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Any genre will no doubt have its purists and its separatists, but no matter what the form, it is bound to experience changes over time. Mostly what we see is an ebb and flow between genres attempting to evolve by entering into the realm of self awareness, usually followed by a return to behaving "as they should" (commercially, that is). When the term "porn" is applied to the Saw franchise, many of its fans get defensive (at least, those who don't want to admit to liking porn), even though the term is accurate in that it is a nearly infallible commercial product, not to mention what is keeping most hometown video stores in business these days. (Actually, porn may ultimately have more cultural value than a Saw film, if only in regards to those who need basic instruction). The term was also applied by critics to John Carpenter's The Thing in the early eighties, but it's hard to make the case that there is anything as weighty in the Saw series as what supports the excesses of Carpenter's masterpiece, which is in some ways a sci-fi version of And Then There Were None.  Unfortunately, the Saw franchise was seen by many of its viewers to be a fresh evolution of the horror genre; the answer to what was next after Wes Craven's Scream franchise had produced three entries, when in actuality it was a return to treating the production of horror films like the production of hamburgers.  In Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's new film The Cabin in the Woods, the genre seems to be flowing back toward the meta-horror mode.  Hitting theaters alongside the resounding flop of Scream 4, Cabin is both more successful as a critique of the horror industry, and as pure entertainment.

Scream (1996)
Richard Jenkins - Cabin in the Woods
Whedon fans will be able to unpack all of the "Whedon-isms" that The Cabin in the Woods is surely rife with (no, I still haven't gotten around to Buffy), but what strikes me as more interesting about the picture, as with And Then There Were None, is the level of craft.  Inspiring the loudest public cry of "DO NOT SPOIL" in recent memory, the film has already inspired a companion reader to assist fans in geeking out on its plethora of references.  But, the true accomplishment of the film is how it avoids the trap of simply becoming a collage of meaningless references, or a film that can be simply boiled down to its ultimate reveal.  Cabin ultimately emerges as a singularly inspired work that pushes audiences past the act of simply recognizing a pop culture reference, and toward engaging what the tropes of the genre suggest about the cultural uses of Horror.  And, frankly, the jokes work.  Cabin is one of the funniest movies I've seen in the theater in a long time, particularly when it comes to the inspired casting and performances of Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford.  The actors who play the characters in the "Cabin in the Woods" film-within-the-film score some nice moments as well, but if there's a problem with the film its in their particular arc.  As they slowly find themselves embroiled in the ludicrous conspiracy of the film, their manipulated transformation into the iconic stereotypes of Horror required to appease the "Gods" seems a muddled aspect of the film.  But, the idea of aligning the very real notion of sacrificial ritual with our desire to collectively gather beneath the bloody flicker of constructed horror narratives is where the film reaches a bit farther, and with a bit more cleverness, than other attempts at genre deconstruction.  If what the audience sees reflected in the mirror of the films opening scene between Jenkins and Whitford is not quite what they expected, then there may be a chance they're not going to be on board for a film whose enjoyment lies in the interplay of a dual narrative, and a recognition that the genre itself has grown a bit tired.  As for the "twist" of Cabin, it's one that is woven throughout, measured in its reveal, and one that happens on a few different levels (one of which lies in the most brilliantly alienating and hilarious title cards in recent memory).  To say that "the cabin is not what it seems" is not really spoiling anything, and something that was already present in the great promotional design for the film.  But (to rephrase Edward Albee), if a movie can be summed up in a single sentence, then that should be its length.  

Kristen Connolly and Jesse Williams - Cabin in the Woods 
For a film whose initial impulse most certainly comes from a childhood fetish I share without embarrassment with Whedon--namely, the "Battle Royale" comics of our youth, as in Marvel's "Secret Wars," which were only an excuse to get all of the super heroes and villains together to see what would happen without the worries of crafting a terribly convincing overarching plot--The Cabin in the Woods doesn't make the common mistake of stopping at that juvenile impulse, but actually builds a movie around that "What if...?" idea, and delivers what the recent spate of super hero or horror films failed to do.  Curiously, The Cabin in the Woods sat on the shelf for quite some time, reportedly over the production companies attempt to apply a post-production 3D process to the film, which it fortunately didn't receive.  The fact that the 3D dispute put Cabin's release date right before Whedon's The Avengers, another movie that would have been just fine minus the post-3D processing, only accentuates the production companies disregard for good product when it comes to the temptation to take in a few extra bucks by over-charging for the magic shades.  But the subsequent close release of the two films reveals something else about the way Whedon's particular skills fit into the industry, as Cabin comes off as an all-to-rare wide release product that is intelligent and well crafted, whereas The Avengers barely survives being another overpriced CGI display by virtue of having Whedon on board.  In both cases, Whedon comes out looking pretty good.  In The Avengers he pulls off a juggling act that barely holds together, a feat of comic book adaptation too often fumbled entirely by directors who don't seem to realize that comic books and movies require, by their very nature, two fairly different levels of engagement.  Obviously, Whedon shows an expert level grasp of structure, and where he thrives as the puppet master of those structural elements in Cabin, in The Avengers he is clearly subservient to the impossible demands of the franchise, though still manages to triumph, albeit in a way that seems minor in comparison.  In Cabin Whedon may not be able to take his impulse to frustrate genre expectations to the artistic heights reached by the Coen Brothers, but even though he's not too likely to achieve a cinematic vision of that proportion (at least until he gets himself a Roger Deakins), he is at least striving for something more than a mere knock off (see: the recent Thin Ice, featuring Greg Kinnear; or, one of Brando's last, Free Money).

The Coen Brothers - Blood Simple (1984)
Whedon and Goddard - Cabin in the Woods
In the end, The Cabin in the Woods earns its indulgences, and although the surprise appearance by Sigourney Weaver as "The Director" at the end is less effective than most of the films other meta-moments, the denoument homage to Carpenter's The Thing is well played.  And, once again, how we get there is the most enjoyable aspect.  The very final image is a questionable one though, as we actually see the demon arm of destruction rise from the cabin, obliterating the perspective of the audience, and the world.  My initial reaction was that the more effective ending would be one more akin to the original ending of The Thing, leaving us in a quiet moment with the final two survivors, and an air of ambiguity.  But, in retrospect, it seems essential that the film take its supernatural conceit to that final extreme, and essential to the survival of the films more covert riches that it not take itself too seriously.  After all, as Miss Brent would put it:  "You can't lock out the Devil."





Instant 3: Silent Era Cinema (For the Love of Film Blogathon)

Want to help bring a piece of film history back into the world?  Now is your chance, for the love of film, by contributing to the National Film Preservation Foundation through ECSTATIC or one of the many other writers participating in the "For the Love of Film" Blogathon III. The film this time around is Graham Cutt's The White Shadow from 1923, which languished in mislabeled canisters in the New Zealand Film Archives for decades, and, most importantly, contains significant contributions by a young Alfred Hitchcock who worked on the film as an assistant director, and contributed to it as a writer, set designer, and editor.

Alfred Hitchcock
Between Sunday May 13th and Friday May 18th the "For the Love of Film" Blogathon III will be hosted by three incredible film blogs, Ferdy on Film, Self-Styled Siren, and This Island Rod, which you should check out since they are all excellent on their own, but also because you can link to a massive number of other film and culture blogs that will be posting writings, reviews, images, etc., all relating to Hitchcock, Cutts, silent cinema, and film preservation in general.  All of those sites will contain links to the National Film Preservation Foundation, which will be taking donations to restore The White Shadow during that period.  You can donate anything from $10 to 100,000 (come on ECSTATIC readers, I know you can reach deep for the love of Hitch!), and in the end we can all collectively witness that beautiful moment when an otherwise lost piece of history flickers (or flows, maybe?) into the present.

The White Shadow (1923)
On ECSTATIC I occasionally write a capsule review section called "Instant 3" that recommends three films around a particular theme currently available to Watch Instantly via Netflix.  The themes of "Instant 3" over the past year have varied widely--from "Cannes Directors" to "70's Trucker Cinema"--so to add a selection of Silent Cinema classics to this list seems the perfect place to veer toward in the eclectic journey of ECSTATIC, and hopefully an appreciated contribution to the Blogathon.  Remember, the discussion boards are always open at ECSTATIC, and productive comments around anything reviewed here are always welcome.  Also, if you look just above the "For the Love of Film" donation button you will see a place where you can subscribe to ECSTATIC via email.  ECSTATIC is a young blog, not yet a year old (see the first post on Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams here), so if you like what you see please help widen the base of dedicated readers!

Brisson, Keen, and Ondra form a doomed love triangle in Hitch's last silent 
1.  The Manxman (1929) dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock's final silent film The Manxman is an adaptation of a novel by Sir Hall Cane, and may surprise those who are only familiar with the Hitchcock of Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds.  Though The Manxman is a pretty straightforward melodrama compared to Hitch's psychological thriller and horror films, and certainly not as re-watchable as many of those pictures (or even a film that Hitch himself regarded very highly), for those looking to gain insight into the career path and development of the "Master of Suspense" it may prove an enjoyable and enlightening entry.  The Manxman seems to get a bad rap because of its fairly predictable story line, which in the first third of the film does feel a bit a stale, even for the late 20's, as the love triangle between likable lug Pete (Carl Brisson) who works on a fishing boat called "The Manx," his best friend since childhood, Philip (Malcolm Keen), a lawyer aspiring to the position of Deemster, and their mutual object of affection Kate (Anny Ondra) plays out in a fashion reminiscent of D.W. Griffith one and two-reelers from 10 or 15 years earlier.  But, although the plot elements of The Manxman are nothing new, it is obvious that they are being handled by a storyteller at the peak of his craft within the silent era, as Hitch effectively draws the dramatic tension in the film, hooking the audience with the desire to see this romantic entanglement of fates resolved.  But, although some might not associate this film with the more established Hitchcock, The Manxman displays his adeptness at creating an impending sense that the only outcome is decidedly grim, but the tragedy here is one of the soul, not of the disturbed or murderous mind.

Carl Brisson as Pete in Hitchcock's The Manxman
Set in the Isle of Man, Hitchcock's use of the scenic locations in The Manxman are often extraordinary, whether it be the drifting fishing boats that frame the film, or the dark, beautiful passage of Kate's anguished flee from Pete late in the film, the menace of the cold, rainy streets contrasting the earlier scenes of their honeymoon, the couple gorgeously framed and protected by the flames of their home fires.  The two male leads in The Manxman had worked with Hitch before;  Brisson in The Ring (1927) and Keen in The Lodger (1927).  Ondra would go on to star in Hitch's first sound endeavor, Blackmail (1929), but because of her thick Czech accent would ultimately have her vocal performance replaced by another actress.  The transition into the sound era certainly had its share of casualties, and The Manxman is perhaps most interesting because of its position on the cusp of that transition into sound production, reminding us that part of Hitchcock's reign is due to his roots in silent mis-en-scene.  Many attempts to ape the master no doubt suffer from their impulse to simply tell rather than show;  of course, few enjoyed and understood the excitement of "showing" like Hitch.  In this respect, The Manxman succeeds dramatically by the Hitchcock tradition of letting the audience in on the central secret while the characters remain clueless.  The final revealing of those secrets in the courtroom scene are carefully composed, and entirely effective.  Part of what ties that final sequence together so well is another performance of note, that of Randle Ayrton as Kate's father Caesar, who lends a weighty and often humorous supporting hand throughout.

Randle Ayrton as Caesar in The Manxman
The British Film Institute recently started a campaign to Rescue the Hitchcock 9 that focused on restoring the films of his silent period, of which The Manxman offers a unique perspective.  Even more exciting is the prospect of tracing the arc of Hitch's craft from the lost reels of The White Shadow to this picture, so remember once again to give a click and donate!

Kathryn McGuire and Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. 
2.  Sherlock Jr. (1924) dir. Buster Keaton

How many films strike so perfectly a combined note of parody, surrealism, slaptsick, and meta-cinema, all topped off by a surprisingly profound statement on the power of the cinema to instruct, as well as its tendency to conceal?  Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. is perhaps my favorite film from this icon of silent comedy, particularly because of its unique combination of outrageous comedic physicality and its underlying nature as a meditation on the Cinema-as-dream-state.  The stunts in Sherlock Jr. are astounding, and remind us how risky, precise, and inventive a comedian Keaton was.  But, those aspects can be found in equal measure in many Keaton pictures, perhaps reaching their peak a couple of years later in his feature-length masterpiece, The General (1926).  What Sherlock Jr. manages is an exaggerated comedic tone, at times cartoonishly pitched, as in a billiards scene (from the film within the film...within the film?) involving poisoned drinks, decorative battle axes rigged to drop, and exploding pool balls, that is offset by a rather sweetly played tale of budding romance, and ultimately a somewhat dense exploration of the ontology of movies.  In the past, when I have screened Keaton and Chaplin for film students, a few may have played the "too-cool-to-laugh" game with The Tramp, but Keaton always manages to create a spontaneous reaction.  Like Chaplin, his expressive skills as an actor are often overlooked, and in this picture his ability to weave in a bit of an essay on the relationship between Man and the Movies plays like a precursor to Godard.  The final image of the puzzled countenance of Keaton's projectionist is profoundly subtle, and expansive in its implications.

Un Chien Andalou  
3.  Un Chien Andalou (1929) dir. Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali

One of those films whose influence is always looming at ECSTATIC, Un Chien Andalou is still the most complete expression of the film-as-dream experience, but with much more radical and aggressive intentions than the likes of Buster Keaton (but, as in the shot above, still tremendously funny at times).  It's difficult to recommend Un Chien as a home viewing experience, because it's not a film one should approach casually, its notorious opening sequence still carrying the capacity to shock, but more importantly, prefacing a long history of visual liberation that has unfolded in its wake.  Still, it's a film that consistently surprises, and one of the first to overtly fracture any expected cinematic construction of chronology, a technique which translates today with surprising novelty.  The notoriously banned film is still unsettling in its more lewd moments, and presents itself at times as a wholly subversive exercise in bad taste, gleefully so.  I suggest that if you take a few Keaton bits, fold in the macabre voyeurism of Hitchcock, and combine them with the subversive tendencies of Surrealism, you might get something that looks like Bunuel and Dali's seminal experimental short.  Although available to Watch Instantly on Netflix (also here, along with a translated version of Bunuel and Dali's original shooting script) the ideal viewing experience for this one may still be the British Film Institute restoration, paired with the equally glorious and crazed follow-up by this dream duo, L'Age D'or (1930), which would be their only other film together.  But, to bring things full circle, if you are curious about other Dali contributions to film, check out his amazing collaboration with Hitchcock in the psychoanalysis thriller from 1945, Spellbound.

Hitchcock/Dali scene from Spellbound


DOUBLE FEATURE: "The Raven" dir. James McTiegue (2012) + "The Hunger Games" dir. Gary Ross (2012)

I was a kid when I last saw Roger Corman's The Raven with Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff, but I have fond memories of it from back in the days when my only home viewing access was the CED disc player (remember, with the pull-out tray, and the needle-based play that often created the visual equivalent of a record skipping?).  With that dreadful, utterly obsolete technology of the 1980's in mind, I think I would find that version of a Corman classic preferable to ever seeing James McTiegue's The Raven again, which will surely be arriving soon in pristine Blu-ray format, along with (I'm guessing) 3 alternate endings attached, just to put an extra fine point on its true nature as one of the most passionless and disappointing pieces of corporate product to come down the pipe in a while.

Vincent Price
John Cusack
Both Corman and McTiegue's films are experiments in adaptation that begin with the works of Edgar Allan Poe, but end up in very different places.  Maybe Corman's notoriously cheap methods with American Independent Pictures (AIP) simply match the literary aspirations of Poe (notoriously cheap himself) better than any over-funded Hollywood project ever could.  Corman made his Poe movies with both a playful love of the literature and an unyielding desire to make movies outside of the system, whereas the recent Raven is so glaringly the product of a system where the studios, as Corman put it, "have been taken over...very heavily by non-film makers."  As it is, McTiegue's film plays like a "fantasy" episode of CSI: Miami or Law and Order (Gothic Murder Unit!), which is fitting since one of the film's scribes, Ben Livingston, has written episodes for both.  The other writer, Hannah Shakespeare, last wrote for The Playboy Club, a quickly cancelled network attempt to cash in on the popularity of Mad Men.  The script for The Raven was apparently in production limbo for quite a while, with rumored star attachments like Ewan McGregor and Jeremy Renner, and eventually landed in the hands of McTiegue, who is probably most known for having worked on the Matrix films, and made his directorial debut with the Wachowski Borther's V for Vendetta.  Now that McTiegue has made The Raven, there will be no doubt about the disconnect between the anarchist spirit of V for Vendetta ever translating into the creative choices of the man behind the camera, especially since The Raven comes off as so utterly unable to doing anything risky with the narrative or visual design that it almost comes off as a pastiche...but, a pastiche of other mediocre or lousy films, rather than great ones (I'm thinking something like a mixture of the worst episodes of CSI, the Hughes' Brothers' From Hell, and the Saw franchise).

David Caruso
Johnny Depp
The Raven attempts to present a few versions of Poe to us, the first of which is the expected Drunken Poe who is a bit of an egoist, raising hell in a Baltimore saloon in the late 1840's.  Later, we are introduced to the Courting Poe, as a way to drum up a bit of empathy for the character and set up the damsel in distress to come, Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), daughter of Captain Hamilton (Brendon Gleeson), who is of course wary of Poe's advances.  Next, we are introduced to Detective Poe, called in to assist Detective Fields (Luke Evans, who I was under the impression was Dominic West from The Wire until recently, but instead turns out to be the forgettable lead of two similarly forgettable recent releases, The Clash of the Titans and The Immortals) who is following a string of murders that suspiciously follow the pattern of Poe's macabre tales.  Although The Raven is a film that deserves to be spoiled, I won't even get involved with how the plot plays out, as the set-up should give you an idea of the amount of genuine surprise that is ultimately in store. Although the scenes between Cusack and Sam Hazeldine late in the film hint at the interesting question of the relationship between the fiction and the reality of crime, the film at that point has presented itself as such a lazy exercise of a "Whodunnit," nearly derailed by a ludicrous scene where Poe and the police force hunt for his abducted future bride in the sewer tunnels ("Emily!"), that it's difficult to care about anything that the film might ultimately have to offer beyond its thin plot.  Even later in the film, after the killer has been revealed, there is a moment that suggests a potentially clever structural element, as we return to the film's opening scene of Poe slowly dying on a park bench.  In this moment, it seems that the literally poisoned Poe may be melding with the actuality of Poe's death, possibly situating what came before as his final fictive fantasy.  Unfortunately, this brief glimmer of hope that the fresh air of ambiguity might blow through this dank picture is suffocated by a particularly yawn-worthy "surprise" ending.

John Cusack and Sam Hazaldine in The Raven
It's hard to blame Cusack's abilities for what is so rotten about The Raven, seeing as it's a film where the casting choices seem entirely arbitrary, and the hope that different choices would make it better is slight, at best.  The Raven is an awful film if it stars Robert Downey Jr., Joaquin Pheonix, or Nicholas Cage, and it's achingly apparent those who produced it were attentive to little else beyond its nature as a star vehicle. The fault is primarily in the script, and this fact is regretfully written on the countenance of nearly every performer.  It's not that Cusack or Gleeson don't pull off a charming moment or two, it's just that we have rarely seen them so uninspired by the material at hand.  I took few notes while watching The Raven, but looking at them now I find one that seems to simply say it all, in retrospect: "Passion?!"  And that's just it:  Cusack cannot seem to create any passionate engagement with such a flimsy version of Poe, one that is separated into three different parts in the name of the screenwriters following through with a premise that they should have abandoned in their undergrad writing programs.  In contrast, see Cusack's scenes with Nick Nolte in The Thin Red Line (1998), which are evidence enough that Cusack is as good a serious actor as you can find when something is asked of him.  Unfortunately, for all the actors involved, as well as the audiences who will expect that the combination of Cusack playing Poe can't be that bad, The Raven fails to ask so little that it hardly seems to matter.

Edgar Allan Poe 
"But it gets kids to read!"  This will most definitely be one of the first arguments in defense of a picture like The Raven, which is somewhat awkwardly positioned as a rather gratuitous, R-rated film that has a plot built for sub-PG-13 minds.  Of course, in the worldview of The Raven I'm just another fat bellied critic, not unlike the one who gets gruesomely sliced in half ala The Pit and the Pendulum in the film for simply being a critic, and whose profession is commented on after his death as being "the easy stuff" (along with "poetry").  In this move, a film that is supposedly born of a love for Poe's poems and stories defines itself as having a particularly immature relationship to the literature at hand, only interested in a shallow, pop-reference level of engagement, not unlike John Madden's Shakespeare in Love (1998).  Likewise, I'm thinking many of those teachers and parents who defend and support the market of mega-lit-to-movie franchises like Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games most likely sever their interest when it comes to reading criticism.  In this sense, the "promotion of literacy" argument may not reach as far as it proclaims, and becomes a sort of hideout for kids and adults from a mature reading of anything, whether it be literature or film.  Not only is the critic-as-victim a tired plot device, but it's irresponsible in what it offers to the larger understanding of the value of criticism.  What is reflected in our culture when so many have been trained to see the act of critically reading something as a nusaince, an attack on their sense of self even, or something that intrudes rather than enhances our understanding of the complex art around us?  In this way, The Raven makes me long for the mature depth of ideas found in a film like Brad Bird's Ratatouille (2007).  In that film (as in a number of Pixar films that manage to be rife with good questions and rarely pander to their audience), the revelation of the critic Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole) is the denouement of the film, eloquently articulating the value of the critic in the act of "the discovery and defense of the new."  Ultimately, it's not so much the gratuitous nature of The Raven that I find so offensive as it is the utter lack of anything new.

Anton Ego - Ratatouille
But, if a movie gets a kid to read a book...ok.  I guess we can't expect that parents and teachers can inspire children to read.  Seriously, the onset of the Internet age has altered all of our literate capacities, for better and for worse, and those of us who have lived through that shift can surely attest to that.  But, at the same time, our ability to "read" shouldn't be defined solely by the ability to sit down and finish a thick novel, especially if ones yearly reading amounts to a stack of thick books designed for children.  What it means to be "literate" is not only commonly misunderstood, but continually evolving.  For instance, the glaring omission of "literacy" in relation to the movies is a major issue, as the Cinema increasingly becomes a place serving only the needs of "entertainment" as opposed to the more "intellectual" fulfillment that Reading (with a capital "R"!) provides; for that audience, the movies are not a place where one should have to "read" anything, but, rather, a place where they are "read to."  Also, it seems only certain types of literature are allowed to exist in the film market, and in film form, and anything that doesn't play by those rules is almost immediately considered not worth the time of a paying audience.  If a film wants to act as a painting, an essay, or a piece of criticism (god forbid), most react as if it's an affront to all that is sacred about their relationship to watching movies, while remaining eager to spend as much time as needed with just about anything, as long as it doesn't ask them to think.  Also, when it comes to literature that tends to cross over from page to screen, particularly in the world of Young Adult or Children's Lit adaptations, there seem to be some important differences between the products, as the potential for any meaningful engagement seems to get reduced by the stifling concerns of marketing, which can alternately take the form of neutering a film through censorship or infusing it with gratuitous elements.  As for Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, I am assured by readers I trust that the books are far richer than what we get in Gary Ross's first film installment.  For all the hype, I sure hope so.

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games
Markedly more watchable than The Raven, though not entirely successful as a stand-alone film, The Hunger Games begs the question of why we might even need Dystopian fiction for young adults, much less films that truncate that fiction, and then have to "behave" by the rules of the MPAA.  The Hunger Games is obviously engaged with the modern world in a way that is both poignant and potentially subversive, but there's no denying that it is preceded by a lot of fiction that handles the same themes much better, which is hopefully still the destination of any gateway Collins or the film might open.  As for films, Daniel Minihan's regretfully overlooked 2001 film Series 7: The Contenders strikes a much more affecting chord in how it presents the idea of reality television crossing that line of cultural desensitization, particularly in how closely it places that "reality" to our own. The Hunger Games is distant in contrast, a fantasy of a world estranged, just enough, from our own.  In this way, The Hunger Games allows its target audience to engage in the same activity that it critiques as a cause of it's own rather horrific world view.  What strikes me as particularly absurd and ineffective about the film is the way in which it so obviously relies on the appeal of getting to "The Hunger Games" within the film, only to pull back so drastically from the depiction of the violence once it gets there.  Of course, at that point, the film has similarly pulled back from the violence of poverty in its depiction of our hero Katniss Everdine's post-apocalyptic, rural home, Sector 12 (played by North Carolina).  Jennifer Lawrence, coming off of a noteworthy performance in the over-rated hillbilly noir Winter's Bone (which seemed to only engage and convince critics who didn't grow up anywhere near rural poverty) enters The Hunger Games as if she walked off the airbrushed pages of People Magazine, stylishly clad in a vintage-looking leather jacket.  And, oh yeah, a little hungry.  (In fact, to further make the point of how entwined The Hunger Games is with its own themes of obsession and oppression, read People magazine's report here about an increase in tourism to the actual sight of Katniss's poverty row house).

I'll admit that I was rapt with The Hunger Games at the point of finally reaching the game itself.  In the moment when the contestants are raised into the sacrificial, televised space of competition, I was as thirsty as the rest of the audience to be entertained by this spectacle, the potential for the interplay of suspense and surprise reeling in my brain.  I was tired of watching Lenny Kravitz act, and I was feeling the blood lust.

Unfortunately, what I got were some of the most unexciting and inept action sequences in recent memory.  What should be articulate, exciting, and risky scenes of violence (Call in Gareth Evans, maybe?) are reduced to shaky cameras and scant splatters of blood; the cinematic equivalent of a lamely written passage of YA fiction.  These passages of the film brought to mind Ridley Scott's Gladiator (2000), a film relevant to the discussion in that it employs similarly intolerable camera techniques, and is perhaps even less self-reflexive about the nature of both the audience portrayed within the film, as well as the audience paying to see it (and, the second reference in this piece so far to a horrendously undeserving Best Picture Oscar Winner, which I hope isn't an omen of what's in store for The Hunger Games).  Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale (2000) often comes up in this discussion as well, and though it may have come a bit closer to fully embracing the depiction of the violence, it is ultimately as ineffective as The Hunger Games in what it offers up in the final consideration.

Battle Royale
Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems that the violence, and the violence of hunger, in The Hunger Games is essential to its goals as a piece of fiction and social commentary, and therefore not gratuitous in the slightest, as it seems to be labeled in the endless mainstream media debates over the content of the film.  The typically reactionary discourse over the "brutality" of The Hunger Games misses the point, and in doing so underestimates the critical psyche of the youth culture, and, worst of all, fails to challenge it.  As an adaptation, The Hunger Games is not served well by being forced into a two-hours-plus feature film (not unlike I noted in my piece on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), and unfortunately seems to deserve a more extended, serious meditation on its themes.  But, I guess that would be a more difficult project to use as a way to sell magazines and fast food.  Too bad, since the younger audience for the film, as well as some of the adults, desperately need to be connected to the violence of the world through works like The Hunger Games, not shielded from it.